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The economy of the suspended grain

Faithfulness and redemption/5 - In the culture of the Bible, private property will always be an imperfect domain

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  25/04/2021

"I was the last on watch; I was like one who gleans after the grape-gatherers; by the blessing of the Lord I excelled, and like a grape-gatherer I filled my wine press".

Sirach, 33,16

Ruth is the gleaner. But what was gleaning in the Bible? And what is the great message of justice and communion that it contained and still contains?

«Now Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side, a man of standing from the clan of Elimelek, whose name was Boaz» (The Book of Ruth 2,1). In a tale that, until now, had only been inhabited by female characters, suddenly a man makes his entrance, remaining in it until the end. Boaz is a man of valour. If Naomi, despite being a widow and childless, nevertheless has a "respectable" relative in Bethlehem, it serves to make her less "empty" than she previously seemed. However, we, the readers of the book, and Naomi alone know this first verse. Ruth does not. She remains unknowing. The Bible does not allow us to enter into its mystery, not even on a dramatic level, if we do not respect the order and rhythm that the text intended for its characters. If we at this point, do not become as unknowing as Ruth.

We find Ruth, in a difficult situation, together with Naomi. After the prophetic impetus of the beginning of her calling, now it is merely a question of being able to live, or at least to survive. Naomi seems to persist in her state of bitterness. Hence, Ruth once again takes the initiative: «And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.” Naomi said to her, “Go ahead, my daughter”» (The Book of Ruth 2,2). Gleaning. The decisive word of the book, the one seen by the artists and by much of popular piety. Because Ruth is many things, but above all she is the gleaner.

It was the time of the barley harvest (1.22), a harvest that came after a long famine (1.6). A foreign woman, widowed and turned poor, could survive during the time of harvest by gleaning behind the reapers. The men passed first, taking the ears of grain with their left hand, and with the scythe on the right they would cut the "sheaves" (the quantity of ears contained in one handful), leaving the mowed ears on the ground. Then the women gathered those ears of grain, tying them and forming the sheaves. Finally, the gleaners, a mainly female profession, arrived to scrape together and glean what was left unbound and on the edges. The gleaners were hence women who followed other women who followed the reapers. Theirs was a residual, third-rate collection, which depended on the action of those who preceded them. Not picking on the outer edges and leaving a few loose ears of grain on the ground was intentional. Those ears did not stay there due to distraction or neglect. Wheat, in that world, was precious, a matter of life and death, and not a single ear of grain was left behind by mistake. That grain remained there because it had to, a rest that was wanted, sought after, protected by the Law, and expected by the poor and by the community, which defended it from any abusive form of use. It was "suspended grain", not forgotten.

To the people of Israel the gleaning was in fact ordered by the Law of Moses: «When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner» (Leviticus 19,9-10). And in Deuteronomy: «When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow...» (Deuteronomy 24,20). Hence, the gleaning did not concern only the wheat, but the main products of the countryside, a real social institution of redistribution of wealth. Practices that are similar to the gleaning in the Bible are found in other ancient civilizations as well. Gleaners are represented in the funerary art of ancient Egypt (Joyce Tyldesley, Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt), and therefore it cannot be excluded that the Jews learned the practice of gleaning in Egypt. However, what was largely a marginal and residual practice in other civilizations, in Israel it became an integral part of the Law of Moses. Therefore, to really understand it, it should be read together with the Shabbat, the Jubilee, the ban on usury, which make biblical economy something different and largely unique: «There need be no poor people among you» (Deuteronomy 15,4).

This is what gleaning is in the Bible. An authentic economic prophecy, an expression of the great principle underlying all biblical Law: the earth belongs to YHWH, you are only second users of a wealth that was a gift long before it could be considered the fruit of your effort and your merits. And if the earth and its fruits are first of all gifts, then distributing part of it is nothing more than their logical and rightful consequence. Gleaning is an institution of economic justice, not philanthropy. Those grains left there on the outer edges of the fields and those that the reapers and women drop on the ground are not private property which the owners deprive themselves of for the poor; no: those uncollected grains are part of the common good that rightfully belongs to the poor. It is a working reminder of the free gift of manna in the desert and of its law - the manna never left the biblical and evangelical horizon. An echo of this biblical prophecy can still be found behind the accounts made out to "Lord God" of the Tuscan companies of the fourteenth century, where God collected his dividends through the poor. The fields of Bethlehem were hence a form of common property; even non-owners had a right to them. The edges of the fields and the remaining grains belonged to the whole community. Even non-owners have a right to the goods of the Promised Land. According to the Bible, the whole earth is the Promised Land, and every city is Bethlehem, the "house of bread", the house of bread for all.

Gleaning continued to be somewhat present in Europe until the nineteenth century (especially in France and England). Traces of it could still be found in Sardinia in the twentieth century (Alfonso Peiroleri, The conditions of the agricultural wage in the province of Cagliari/Le condizioni del salariato agricolo in provincia di Cagliari, 1905). However, it is easier to find traces of various abusive practices connected to it. At the beginning of the 1500s in some towns of Calabria (San Martino) the feudal lords (the so called Alimena) boasted rights to part of the grains collected by the gleaners, a similar abuse practice was also present in the fief of Fragagnano (Taranto). Interestingly enough, it was an ordinance of Pope Benedict XIV of 1742: «A large group of people made themselves heard, between lamentations, tears and complaints against the owners of the fields, who no longer want to respect the ancient and pious custom of leaving the poor free to glean the grains left behind in the fields after the harvest» (Pontifical Teachings/Insegnamenti Pontifici, vol.13, Edizioni Paoline). These are the last remnants of a humanism, that was still alive in the Middle Ages, where the private ownership of goods was an imperfect domain because it was shared on many levels and among many parties.

This awareness was very alive and active in religious charisms: «Father Francis orders the gardener to leave the edges of the garden uncultivated, so that in due time the green of the herbs and the splendor of the flowers may sing an ode to how beautiful the Father of all creation is. He also wants a flowerbed in the garden to be reserved for fragrant herbs that produce flowers, so that they can bring those who observe them the memory of eternal sweetness» (Thomas of Celano, Second Life/Vita Seconda, 750). The essence of the Canticle of St. Francis can be found herein, hidden in these details: the land is not ours, not even that piece of land in the convent garden whose fruits and flowers are not only and all for us. They are also there, with their free and wild presence, to tell us that they are free and therefore did not come into the world only for our benefit.

Hence, the economy of the Bible and Ruth reminds us of something extremely important. Goods can only become a blessing for us if we are capable of not using them solely for ourselves. Because the economy of "stuff" made only for us is the economy of Mazzarò in the Verga’s story: «There was only one thing that pained him, he was getting old and would have to leave the land where it was... So when they told him that it was time to leave his things, and think about his soul, he went out into the courtyard, staggering like a madman, and started killing his ducks and turkeys with a stick, screaming: "My stuff, you will come with me! "». Without the help of the great law of gleaning, capitalism will turn into the economy of Mazzarò - we can clearly see this in relation to the planet today.

The literary (Luigi Mercantini's La Spigolatrice di Sapri) and pictorial memories (Jean-François Millet's The gleaners) of the mid-nineteenth century do cannot fully help us to understand what the economic prophecy of gleaning really was. It was the beginning of an era dominated by the absolutization of the sacred right of private property, which would lead to the disappearance of gleaning, which today constitutes a crime in the Criminal Code (pursuant to Article 626).

Yet, several practices that closely resemble gleaning are re-emerging from the very heart of our capitalism and its total cult of the individual and his or her absolute rights over things. People and associations - new Ruths – who, after the "reapers" and the women have passed, go to the markets, supermarkets and bakeries, to collect what is left, and still be able to feed the poor. And there are still those who observe them thinking that the economy that really matters is a different one, that of large properties, profit and returns. Instead, the same prophecy of the economy of Ruth and Francis can be found in those different "banks".

Two final details. Inherent in the law of gleaning is the prohibition to turn around, to go back to collect what is left after the first passage - «... do not go back to get it; ... do not go over the branches a second time» (Deuteronomy 24). The economy of the Bible is an economy of that first passage, because only the first is good enough here. The second batch is not meant for us, it is meant for others who have a right to "our" goods. Turning back is never a good thing in a life of following. Finally, going after Ruth is very suggestive. In the Bible, «going after, pursuing is a good thing» (Jean P. Sonnet). The whole history of salvation is the history of the wandering Aramean who pursues, follows a rumor. The biblical man is a man who walks behind, following. Because what comes first, is the voice, the community, the common good. And every reader of the Bible comes thereafter: «He passes through those lines as through the vines in the vineyards, already stripped bare, which do not belong to us but to which we are admitted because, at the last ones, we are the poorest» (Erri de Luca, Ora prima). Those last surviving grains, however, are not there by chance, or forgotten. They are there, suspended, faithfully waiting for our second batch to arrive. The essential one to feed us, to feed. To free us.

«So she went out, entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelek» (The Book of Ruth 2,3).

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